For Fiscal Year 2020, Martin County will have a budget of $500 million or $3,125 per resident.

Many of us believe that is an extraordinary amount for local government. Roughly 70% of the total budget comes from property taxes. Because of Florida’s system of property tax exemptions and caps, a disproportionate share is paid by business and nonresident property owners. The rest of the income is from grants, fees, shared, and miscellaneous revenue. Can the Board of County Commissioners do much to curtail expenditures in order to reduce taxes?

The County is charged with providing the funds for the constitutional officers. The Sheriff’s Office is the one department that has the largest budget impact. Their budget, at nearly $71 million, is broken down into three subsections. The largest share is law enforcement with a budget of a little over $48 million, corrections and county jail has a budget of $19 million, and providing security at the courthouse is another $3.5 million.

More than $67 million dollars of that department’s budget is from the general fund. The Sheriff’s budget is presented to the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) for its nominal approval. They can reject the budget and make changes. However, the Sheriff can then appeal to an administrative commission in Tallahassee. This appeal process is hardly ever used. If there is a dispute in a county, the sheriff and the commission usually come to terms before that step is taken. A commissioner does not want to be the politician that cut the number of deputies patrolling our streets.

The other half of the public safety equation is Fire/Rescue. The BOCC has both full operational and budgetary control over this agency. Fire/Rescue has a budget of $47.7 million. Much of that amount comes from the Municipal Service Taxing Unit (MSTU). The MSTU is paid based on property value and is charged in the unincorporated areas. Some of the rest of their budget amount comes from the general fund. This occurs when the Fire/Rescue Department provides services for every county resident including those within Stuart and other municipalities such as a hazardous material response.

While the BOCC has full control over this agency, they have generally been supportive of its budgetary requests. Several Commissioners have stated that they are very unwilling to second guess the needs of these first responders. When combined with the Sheriff’s budget, it represents 23% of the total County budget.

Most of these funds are spent on personnel. Are there too many EMTs, firefighters or deputies? The Taxpayers Association is not qualified to determine that. Which places us in the same position as the BOCC.
We would urge the BOCC to take a harder look at the employment compensation packages for these departments. We are not aware of a recent compensation study being done for positions in these departments that considers both neighboring jurisdictions and jurisdictions demographically and economically similar to Martin County throughout the state. The compensation study would need to look at things such as volume of calls answered and fires responded to—in other words, the workload of an employee.

Compensation rates should not be based on volume of work but, rather, complexity of tasks, education/certifications, etc. Volume of work should be addressed by headcount unless it is a piecework environment where production is counted by number of widgets produced in a certain amount of time. Fewer calls equal fewer people or, if a certain number of people are required for each call, then consolidation of fire houses.

Enterprise funds comprise 27% of the total budget. Enterprise funds are fees and charges for direct services. The airport, solid waste, and water are examples of this. The funds are used to pay and improve the operations of those areas. Things such as wastewater management are usually provided by government to the public.

In some cases, such as trash collection, Martin County has decided to outsource that function to a private subcontractor. Since the County collects payments from individual homeowners on behalf of the subcontractor, residents receive more attractive pricing than if each homeowner paid the subcontractor directly. The County has determined that everyone should have garbage collection rather than relegate trash to pits in county backyards.

As taxpayers, we often make the mistake of analyzing the cost of a function instead of the necessity of providing the function itself. As a body, the BOCC has a hard time knowing whether the widget being bought should cost $1 or $5. Because of that they must rely on the expertise of their staffs. The question to be answered, however, is whether the widget should be purchased at all.

What any elective political body seldom discusses is if it should even be providing the service. For example, why does the County provide Fire/Rescue to every resident in unincorporated Martin County? It is the largest department that is under the direct control of the BOCC. It has an enormous cost. To provide that service to the more rural areas of the County on a per capita basis is very expensive. Then, what is the alternative for those people. Should it be a volunteer response?

Good governance should not only examine the cost but the mission. For every department, a comprehensive review of the need for providing services should be undertaken. Taxpayers would be better served by the BOCC doing that one thing than by trying to determine the cost of the widget.

Assuming all services Martin County provides for in its budget are those that should be provided, of the nearly $500 million budget, there is very little tax money that the BOCC has discretion in spending. The Martin County Taxpayers Association believes that, without a true examination of the need for each service provided by the County, taxes will continue to increase.

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